The End of the Line

added 3/26/2006 by Scott Barzilla

Somewhere along the way I got the Traveling Wilbury’s song stuck in my head, but regardless of whether you know the tune, everyone is thinking the same thing about Jeff Bagwell; except Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell continues to preach patience in the midst of overwhelming evidence. After all, when you can’t play more than two innings after a day off you need to seriously revisit your future.

We can all identify with Bagwell. Everyone of us has a vision for our future that involves everything going according to plan. Perhaps we see ourselves getting promoted to the position we want. Perhaps we see ourselves watching our kids grow up to be doctors, scientists, or lawyers and doing the family proud. Jeff Bagwell pictured himself hitting 30 home runs in each of his last two seasons, reaching career 500 home runs, and perhaps even winning a World Series. Whatever the case may be, we don’t always get what we want.

The desire to go out like we want is an understandable desire. Any true Astros fan is rooting for Jeff Bagwell to be able to grit it out and play 150 games. Almost every Astros fan realizes this isn’t going to happen now. So, the only thing left is to figure out exactly how the situation will play out. The club and Bagwell essentially have three options in front of them: they can disable him, they can carry him as a pinch hitter, or he can retire.

Oddly enough, the fun might just be beginning for the Astros and Bagwell. If Bagwell retires he will have to negotiate a settlement with the Astros, but the Astros chances of getting their insurance settlement dwindle. If he is disabled he gets all of his money, but he doesn’t get closer. Ironically, neither party wants him to pinch hit for the season.

Why continue playing?

Continuing to play is a personal decision for all players. I’m sure there are a lot of things running through Bagwell’s mind right now. First, he doesn’t want someone else to dictate when he is through. Secondly, he sees a team that has a chance to win and he wants to be a part of it. Finally, while Bagwell has never talked about it openly, I’m sure that a part of him is concerned with his place in history. The recent news about Barry Bonds doesn’t help in this regard.

Despite his injuries, the steroid stain has never come that close to Jeff Bagwell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to in this era. When someone hit 449 home runs twenty years ago they had a pretty good chance on that alone to get a ticket punched to Cooperstown. In this era that’s not enough and since the BBWAA is some homer hungry it is not a lock that Bagwell will get into Cooperstown.

The value of Jeff Bagwell is in the versatility and that is a versatility the Astros will miss. He not only hit home runs but he also got on base. He didn’t only get on base, but he also ran the bases better than almost any first baseman in recent memory. He not only ran the bases better than most first baseman, but he also was a better fielder than most first basemen. The combination is pretty overwhelming when you add it all together.

          Bagwell      1B Rank
OBP        .408            8
SLG        .540           10
SEC        .449            9
ISO        .244           11 
RC         1768            7
RCAA        680            5
SB          202           19
OW%        .704           11

Every single player that has more steals than Bagwell played their entire careers before World War II. So, Bagwell has been a more proficient base stealer than every first baseman since World War II. Otherwise, he rates pretty consistently between fifth and eleventh in the other offensive numbers. Of course, we also have the defensive numbers to consider.

                 Bagwell     1B Rank
Assists            1699          2
Double Plays       1616         10
FPCT               .993         29
Games              2111          9

These fielding numbers are nice, but they don’t tell us much. To truly appreciate Bagwell we need to appreciate him in his prime. While we must include the last three seasons in our final rankings, we can look back to where he was following 2001. The shoulder issue first reared its ugly head in 2002, so 2001 seems to be a pretty good fall back position.

               Bagwell        Rank 
FRAA              80           15
FRAR             177           18
WS              25.1           40
WS/1000         1.76           39

The true value here is not in the rankings, but that he was solid defensively while being great offensively. This is manifested when you look at almost every single overall ranking system you can come up with. Here are the most common along with the Hall of Fame index.

                  Bagwell      Rank
Wins Shares         387          6
HOF Index          1589          4
WARP3              125.3         6

Win shares have been around for awhile and my Hall of Fame index will be introduced later on this year, but WARP3 might be new to some of you. It stands for “wins above replacement player”. A replacement player can be defined as the worst regular first baseman available. So, Bagwell is 125.3 wins better over the course of his career than the 30th best first baseman. The WARP3 statistic is different than WARP1 and WARP2 in that it includes a multiplier to normalize games played for players that played in the 19th century and under 154 game schedules.

You can’t define greatness

Numbers can only describe greatness. Bill James once said that statistics were language. If they are language they are adjectives. They describe greatness. We can no more define Jeff Bagwell’s greatness with numbers anymore than we define our love for our family with numbers. So, I hope not to offend anyone through the use of my numbers above. We didn’t see Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and comparing anyone with Dan Brouthers from the 19th century seems futile. We know without looking at numbers that Jeff Bagwell was the best overall first baseman in baseball throughout the 1990s.

When I throw the numbers aside I’m left with the personal selfishness of not wanting Bagwell to go on. I want to remember him as the best position player Houston has ever seen in an Astros uniform (although a strong argument can be made for Joe Morgan). I want to remember him as the near perfect baseball player he was in his prime. Seeing him play two innings and then calling it a day is not the way I wanted to see him go out. I’m sure many of us are in the same boat there.

So, if the Astros call a press conference next week or if Bagwell calls his own press conference I will be sad initially. A large part wants to see Bagwell play. The lasting feeling will be a feeling of relief. We can’t always go out the way we want, but all of us should go out with our dignity intact.